By Heart--a sermon on Matthew 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
By Heart
Matthew 4.1-17
18 January 2015, Epiphany 3, NL1-20

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

 

When I was 17, I moved to Chicago for college. A few months after my 18th birthday, some friends invited me to a concert at their church, and then when I went to that, they invited me to a service as well. I went with them, then again by myself, and then found myself at a new members’ class, all before I really understood what had drawn me there. I had read the Bible from a literature perspective, but had never been to church before, except once in high school to play the clarinet with a handbell choir.

When I met with the pastor about joining and discovered I’d have to be baptized, I nearly backed out. I asked if I could do it, but tell my parents later. I hesitated. Obviously I did tell parents—and that went fine, much to my surprise. And one April morning I found myself in a navy blue dress and white cardigan, kneeling on the cold marble steps of a neoGothic cathedral. That day my pastor gave me a new Bible. It has continued to be my favorite even though I have probably a dozen more between my home and office—some more compact, some more grown-up looking, some with better footnotes, some in different translations. But this Bible has been the one that has seen me through my entire Christian life so far.

Almost immediately I began a practice that I continue even now. As I am reading, if I come across something I want to remember, I write it on a purple index card, and I stick the card in the spot, almost like a bookmark. Every now and then I take several cards out and carry them around for a while, almost like flashcards. Then occasionally I put those back and take others out. It’s one of the ways I try to implant the word of God in my psyche.

You probably have other ways. Some of you may have gone to Sunday School during a time when memorization was a key teaching strategy. Others of you may have accidentally memorized things simply by virtue of reading them so many times, or hearing them in church so frequently. Maybe some of you have photographic memories and you can’t help but remember what you read. Maybe some of you don’t have anything memorized, and yet I know you have a sense of some of the important things in God’s word.

The prophet Jeremiah said that God would write the word on our hearts. What does it look like to know God’s word by heart? Not by rote, but by heart?

I think it might look like our reading today. Now, I don’t want to compare myself or anyone else to Jesus when it comes to having the word of God by heart, but since we are all on a path to becoming more Christlike, it seems we should take this seriously.

While he was still dripping from the river, the Spirit descended on Jesus and God’s voice proclaimed that Jesus is God’s beloved son. Then that same Spirit led Jesus away from the river and the gaping crowds and John’s questions, into the wilderness. There, in the desert, he will meet his adversary.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tempter’s first words, after Jesus has fasted for forty days in the desert, are about food. After all, when I haven’t eaten for four hours the tempter is right at my shoulder.

“Since you are God’s son…turn this stone into a loaf of bread.”

The temptation to self-sufficiency is great. I am sure I’m not the only one who falls into the trap of thinking I can do it myself.

But Jesus has the word of God by heart. He has a relationship with God that can be relied upon—after all, he’s already trusted God to bring him through 40 days without food in the desert. From his heart, he is able to say “I am not actually self-sufficient. I stand on God’s promise, not on my own power. I am dependent on God, and to say I could depend only on myself is folly. Man does not live by bread alone.”

So the tempter tries a different tack. “Since you are God’s son, throw yourself off the Temple, for the scriptures say that angels will bear you up and God will not let you dash your foot against a stone.”

In the midst of difficulty, it’s easy to make bargains with God. To think “If God really loved me, then he would __fill in the blank__.”  Especially for someone who has so recently felt the Spirit on his shoulder and heard the voice of God declaring him beloved…what would be the harm in showing that off just a little? Doesn’t he deserve a little acclaim after this suffering in the wilderness? What if everyone has forgotten his baptism by the time he leaves the desert? This is a great chance to prove that what they heard was true. I mean, it would be good for both God and Jesus in the end, right? It’s a great bargain.

But Jesus knows that even if everyone else forgets his baptism, he remembers. He does not need to bargain with God, because the word is already written on his heart. He does not need to give in to the tempter’s misuse of scripture, because he can see the difference between letting the word dwell in you richly and using the word for your own purposes. So he says simply that scripture tells us not to put the Lord our God to the test…and to twist scripture to test God is a misuse, not a faithful use.

Seeing that the temptation to self-sufficiency and the temptation to bargain and cement his fame have failed, the tempter goes for the big grand finale. “All the kingdoms of the world” he promises Jesus, if only you will worship me.

Not just fame and fortune, but power as well. To possess all the kingdoms of the world…but in so doing, lose the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows, better than we do, that his calling is to embody God’s kingdom and to cause it to come here on earth. Is he willing to trade that work—the teaching, the healing, the slow-to-understand disciples, the arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, the crown of thorns and the cross?

The shortcut often looks pretty attractive. I mean, maybe if he took the offer, he could then be a sort of double agent, bringing all those kingdoms into God’s realm without having to first win them over. Plus he’d be very powerful along the way.

But Jesus knows that good intentions are no substitute for faithful following of God’s good call. From the depths of his heart, he can feel God’s word growing and growing, calling him to take up his cross, because that is the way to win kingdoms. The power of God is not like the power of the world, and every time we fall into the trap of worldly power, we need to know that we may very well be trading away kingdom power.

Jesus resists yet again the option of doing it his own way, and reminds his adversary that he worships and serves God alone. No matter how tempting it is to create his own light, he knows his job is to shine the light of God.

How does he know? It’s easy to say “well, he’s Jesus, so he already knows how this is all going to go, and what he’s supposed to do, and he is the word of God, and he is God, so of course he has scripture by heart.” I’ve said those things…and I also think they are the tempter speaking to and through us, trying to convince us that because we are not Jesus, we don’t need to be so scrupulous in our relationship with God. It’s okay to trust ourselves or worldly power or a bargain sometimes, because we can’t possibly be as good at resisting temptation as Jesus…

But we can. It won’t be easy, of course, but then neither was fasting in the desert for forty days. Neither was dealing with the disciples as well as the Pharisees. The path of transformation into more and more Christlikeness will not be simple or painless. Neither was carrying the cross. Jesus never said the way would be easy. But he did say that he would be with us, that when we are carrying his burden we will find it light, that the Spirit will be our Advocate when we are faced with the Adversary.

This is the relationship we want to nurture. To learn to trust God, not only believe in God, is a lifelong process. It begins with having the word by heart, not only because then it’s always ready when you need it, but also because to truly know God’s word is a sign of how important it is to us. We know by heart all kinds of things that matter—our address and phone number and social security number and email address and passwords, birthdays and anniversaries. We also know by heart all kinds of things that don’t matter much—song lyrics and movie quotes and jokes we first heard 20 years ago. What would it take to add some scripture to our hearts? And more importantly, why do we resist the idea?

What would happen if we really made an effort to know some of God’s word by heart? Not just to have it in our minds, not just to be able to google it, but to know it—even just a few verses—so well that they live in us, become a part of us.

Besides deepening our relationship with God, and giving us something to rely on in the midst of life, it might also be like a compass, telling us when we are about to give in to the tempter and his offers of self-sufficiency, of ego, of worldly power and wealth. The adversary threw his most impressive pitches at Jesus—the very things we humans all struggle with, like independence rather than interdependence, proving ourselves to others rather than remembering who we are and who God is, and the dream of an easy path to millions rather than the harder struggle to the kingdom of God, where our true treasure lies.

So this is the challenge: this week, choose a bit of God’s word. It might be just a couple of verses that you have read recently, or that you turn to again and again, or that you discover as you search for something that speaks to you in this moment of your life. It should be something you haven’t already memorized, that’s cheating! If you would like recommendations, or help finding something you are thinking of, I’m happy to help. And then do whatever it takes—write it over and over by hand, read it silently and out loud many times a day, draw a picture, post it on every surface in your house, car, and office, cross-stitch it for a sampler or pillow, set a reminder to pop up the verses on your phone, quiz each other at home, set it to music, or whatever way you learn best. Learn part of God’s word by heart. Let the word dwell in you richly, and see what fruit you might bear for God’s kingdom because of it. Rather than creating the light, be a bearer of Christ’s light. And know that when we stand on God’s word, the tempter will never prevail.

May it be so. Amen.

Posted on January 18, 2015 and filed under 2015.